Florida GOPers look to Specter for inspiration

Is Charlie Crist the new Arlen Specter?

No, there’s no indication the Florida governor is looking at a party switch. But much like with Specter, conservative Republicans in Florida are speaking out against Crist and hoping his apostasy on the federal stimulus will open the door for a conservative to take him down.

The parallels are striking, both because Crist and Specter were among so few major Republicans to support the stimulus and because both are set to wage big-time Senate campaigns in which they face primary challengers.

There isn’t yet a chorus of anti-Crist voices in the Florida Republican Party — in fact, polling has him remaining very popular among his base — but Crist’s detractors say they can change that. And now they have their change instrument, in former state House Speaker Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads What the gun safety debate says about Washington Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE.

Rubio’s announcement Tuesday that he will run for retiring Sen. Mel Martinez’s (R-Fla.) seat ensures Crist won’t have a free ride in the GOP primary — and increasingly, it looks like it may not be an easy ride, either.

“We are seeing the same array of forces in this potential race that we saw last week with Specter and Toomey, and much of the same rhetoric being used,” said Atlanta-based GOP consultant David Johnson.

Rubio supporter and GOP fundraiser Ana Navarro, a self-appointed leader of the anti-Crist movement, said Republican activists will drive home the stimulus support, with the idea that Crist’s support is a mile wide and an inch deep.

“Specter has not changed on social issues for his entire career, and Pennsylvania Republican primary voters were OK with that; but the last straw was the stimulus vote,” Navarro said. “I think Charlie has greatly misjudged the incredible damage of his fawning support of the stimulus package.”

Unlike with Specter, though, anti-Crist voices are few and far between at this point. And the biggest potential anti-Crist voice, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), is keeping quiet.

But increasingly reputable GOP voices are beginning to acknowledge the stimulus support could pose problems for Crist.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), talking to a local TV reporter this weekend, said that “diehard Republicans are still mad at Charlie.”

Ros-Lehtinen, who, like Rubio, is a Cuban-American from the Miami area, also suggested Bush could get behind Rubio.

“If Jeb says to Marco, ‘I will bring the dollars with me,’ then I’d say maybe Marco will run against Charlie,” Ros-Lehtinen told WTVJ-TV before Rubio’s announcement.

There is certainly no evidence of Bush lending a hand to Rubio at this point, though Rubio has signed top Bush fundraiser Ann Herberger. But Rubio’s supporters are confident Bush will at least stay neutral, given his antagonistic past with Crist, and if Rubio gains traction, Bush might be tempted to push him over the finish line.

But it’s too early to make such judgments, with the unknown Rubio registering just 8 percent in a crowded GOP primary in an April Quinnipiac poll.

The polling has consistently shown Crist in the low- to mid-50s, so Rubio would have to pick up every non-Crist voter and eat into his numbers a bit. Either that, or hope that Crist’s support is soft enough for his voters to stay home on primary day.

“I think Rubio has a pretty good shot,” said Florida Republican lobbyist Eddy Pauley, who praised Crist’s performance as governor. “You wind up with a different group of people that come out and vote in a primary.”

In a crowded field, Crist would be a cinch. But so far, only Rubio has taken up the fight against him, and others appear unlikely to enter the race, including Rep. Vern Buchanan and former state House Speaker Allan Bense.

Johnson pegs the anti-Crist forces within the GOP at 40 percent and says the race likely will be closer than many expect, though he doesn’t yet see Crist losing.

Rubio has already begun trying to bring Crist’s numbers down, and he’s getting a big assist from Democrats wary of Crist’s bipartisan appeal in the general election.

For his part, Rubio has been indirectly hitting Crist for not offering an alternative to the Democrats — a nod to the stimulus — and repeatedly referring to him as “famous” — a line of attack similar to a Democratic tactic that has portrayed Crist as a golden boy lacking substance or results.

Rubio admitted his dark-horse status, but also said he has done his research and thinks he can win.

“I don’t anticipate being the front-runner, and I don’t anticipate being the person who’s going to be in the lead much of this race,” Rubio told The Hill. “If, ultimately, more famous people than us get elected, it won’t be because we didn’t offer a clear and authentic alternative.”

The state and national party are officially neutral, though top figures will likely support Crist as a more electable nominee. The winner of the primary could face Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), state Sen. Dan Gelber (D) or Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio (D) in the general election, and none of them matches up well with Crist.

Crist’s office referred questions to the state party, where Chairman Jim Greer suggested he just wants the race to be clean.

“If Gov. Crist enters the Senate race, it’s going to provide an opportunity for a discussion of what issues are important to voters and what issues are not, and how the challenges that Floridians face can be solved,” Greer said.